On Tolerance

The tension between the social justice movement and the liberal ideals of tolerance and free speech came crashing into the mainstream last week, as activists at the University of Missouri and Yale gained widespread attention for events occurring on their respective campuses. There has been a lot of coverage, so if you are not familiar with the situation, I would recommend (sorted by brevity) this video, reading Popehat’s two posts here and here, Robby Soave at Reason, Jonathan Chait in NY Magazine, and for a longer piece, Connor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic.

Having observed many events and effects of the social justice movement, I’d like to propose a way to think about the liberal value of tolerance, a value that social justice activists have generally disregarded. There are other issues with the movement’s methods, and for more on that, I would recommend some Slate Star Codex links in the first footnote (1).

Recent events have indicated that many social justice activists are not concerned about the movement’s chilling effects on free speech. I think the coverage of the events and general political sentiment recognize this is a dangerous situation, and that free speech must be defended, even for speakers with whom we disagree (2). But I’d like to submit a broader defense of tolerance, especially in light of what free speech does not defend. Randall Munroe of xkcd (3) presents the counter-thesis, essentially arguing for intolerance as long as it is allowed by law:

Use of this comic for criticism purposes qualifies as fair use under Copyright Act of 1976, 17 US Code Section 107.

Although Munroe is correct in that it is totally legal to advocate for people who you disagree with to lose their jobs, I think it is a pretty disturbing, intolerant position. But I want to better understand what tolerance means by looking at a thought exercise I call the Tolerance Gradient. Continue reading On Tolerance

I’m Not Afraid Of The Next President

This is my last post (with 75% certainty). Not only do I have no time to blog, I have no time to maintain the site enough to keep everything updated and secure. If you’re interested in buying the domain to inherit some ephemeral backlinks contact me at the sidebar email.

Last week I spent two and a half hours watching the second GOP presidential debate. I knew that almost none of it would matter in twelve months. I knew I could more efficiently read a few articles in the morning. But my willpower wasn’t strong enough to resist the immediate gratification.

I was struck by how much the candidates are selling fear. Carly Fiorina wants me to fear ISIS and Iran. Donald Trump wants me to fear immigrants. Mike Huckabee wants me to fear gay rights. Ted Cruz wants me to fear Obama. Rand Paul wants me to fear the government’s assault on civil liberties.

While the candidates are all trying to sell themselves with fear about everything, everyone else is busy trying to make us afraid of the candidates themselves. And no matter who wins the nomination of either major party, great sums of money and time will be spent selling fear of both of them. Fear that Trump would be a reckless diplomat. Fear that Fiorina would be way too militaristic. Fear that Clinton’s corruption would damage the nation. Fear that Bernie Sanders’ socialism would destroy the economy. Fear fear fear fear fear.

It probably says more about who I am these days than any of the candidates, but as I watched the politicians and wanna-be outsiders evade questions and recite rhetoric during the debate, I thought to myself, you know, I’m not really afraid of any of these guys. I guess I’m supposed to be afraid that Jeb Bush isn’t a true conservative, or that several of the leading candidates show little interest in preserving civil liberties or restraining the unintended consequences of military intervention, but I just can’t get worked up about it anymore.

To hear the candidates talk about Iran, you’d think the threat of a country that doesn’t even have nuclear energy was on the same level as the Cuban Missile Crisis. To hear them talk about the economy, you’d think we were still at the peak of the Great Recession, not rolling through sixty-something months of job growth.

It’s not that I think the country has no challenges. It’s not that I don’t have concerns about how certain candidates would address them. But on the one hand I don’t think things are as bad as they want me to think, and on the other hand I don’t think they have as much power as they pretend to affect those things anyway. When you consider the limits and effects of Congress, financial realities, demographic changes, black swan events, and more…

It’s just hard for me to get excited about opposing any of these folks as The Wrong One For Our Country. I can’t buy the fear they’re selling, and I can’t buy the fear of their fear, either. The opportunity cost is too high; I’d rather spend my mental cycles on other things.

Is ‘Black Lives Matter’ Responsible For Recent Killings?

Police forces in America have undergone heightened criticism and scrutiny in the last year or two following widespread protests of high-profile police shootings of black men. It has become fashionable in some conservative circles to claim that this wave of criticism has scared police from doing their jobs and to blame this criticism for increases in crime and perhaps even the unraveling of society.

This piece by Michael Barone is typical of the genre. Barone manages to blame “Black Lives Matter” for everything from recent ambushes of police officers to increases in homicides in major U.S. cities. This viewpoint believes there is nothing, or almost nothing, wrong with policing in America today, that Black Lives Matter was founded on false premises involving disproportionate police shootings, with a criminal poster child to boot, and that the critical response is leading police to pull back from their good crime-fighting work, ironically leading to an increase in the real problem of black-on-black crime. Black lives matter, indeed.

I am skeptical of many elements and implications of this narrative, though I am willing to follow data wherever it leads. There is enough suggestive data, and the implications, if true, are serious enough, that it is worth exploring. Overall, however, I believe the narrative involves cherry-picked examples and oversimplified correlations that spring from what are nonetheless valid concerns about the current discussion around policing.

The Facts About Killings of Police

After describing some of the worst things people associated with Black Lives Matter have said or chanted, many calling for the murder of police officers, Barone implicates the movement: “some people seem to be acting on that advice,” followed by a list of recent police killings, including several from August alone.

Such killings are terrible – but are activists responsible? Barone’s timeline is certainly questionable. The cited Minnesota State Fair chant occurred after all four of his examples of police deaths. Even if it caused nothing, that arguably makes such chanting even more indefensible – it certainly shows little concern for such deaths. Besides, it is only representative of a general tenor that has been prevalent for quite some time.

What evidence we should expect to see if the link is genuine? An increase in police being killed? The evidence suggests that so far this year such numbers remain among the lowest in decades.

Bill O’Reilly tried to implicate the movement on his show and was told that “there are fewer cops shot this year than last year. Are you willing to give Black Lives Matter credit for that?… Seventeen percent…. August was a bad month. In July there were none. Overall they are down. I don’t see an epidemic there.”

Any officer death is a tragedy, and if police protests were leading to an increase in people shooting police, that would be very concerning, both for the officers and their families, and for society at large. To strengthen the argument, one could present evidence that more police are being ambushed, as opposed to being shot by suspects with whom they are already engaged. To really strengthen the argument, one could present evidence that any of these recent killings were directly inspired by BLM, such that they likely would not have occurred without BLM, as similar killings did before them.

Thus far, however, I have seen no evidence in either case, and the only evidence suggests that killings of police officers remain among historical lows. (There may be those on the ‘police side’ who are focusing now on every new killing of an officer and committing some of the same logical fallacies of those who focus on every officer killing of an unarmed black man.)

It is true that the better parts of Black Lives Matter may not be doing enough to disassociate themselves from the worst things said by those sharing their slogans. While I saw nearly universal condemnation of the NYPD slaying last December from pretty much every person I had ever seen question anything about policing post-Ferguson, I have seen less more recently. Two recent high-profile defenses of BLM make many good points but say nothing about the frequency of excessive death-wishers in their ranks, even as they insist they are not anti-police.

I admit I find it difficult to have fair expectations; I have previously explored the economics that encourage “denunciation deficits.” While the situation is different enough to avoid too many parallels, the hastiness to link political rivals to the death of political allies reminds me not a little of the reverse attempt a few years ago to link Sarah Palin to the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords, which the right rightly derided. It would be just as wrong, though no one seems to be attempting it, to link any part of conservatism to Dylan Roof’s killing spree, which from what I understand was likely motivated by radical right-wing racialized websites. All of this makes me think of Tim Wises’s comments in White Like Me about the “white privilege” that allows whites to avoid having to answer for the bad things that white people do, while always expecting blacks to answer for any bad thing another black person does.

Still, I think there is a definite deficit here. But I’m not convinced any of it is to blame for recent officers being killed.

The Facts About Urban Homicides

Even if more officers aren’t being killed, more citizens are – at least in some places. Are protesters responsible for reversing two decades of crime decline? At first glance, there’s a strongly suggestive correlation. A New York Times article on recent trends includes this graphic: New York Times - Murder Rises 2015It’s hard not to miss that two of the top three cities – St. Louis and Baltimore – were also the two cities that saw the strongest reactions to killings by officers in the last year, as defined by any number of objective measures such as numbers of buildings burned down. The correlation seems too strong to be a coincidence, something to take very seriously.

But what exactly does it mean? Milwaukee’s numbers are worse than St. Louis and Baltimore, but no state of emergency was ever declared there. They did have large protests over a police killing – but that simply speaks to the sheer number of cities that have police killings. So did Cleveland – and they’re only up 16% (from 50 to 58). So did New York – and they’re only up 9%; cities jump up and down by those margins all the time.

There may be a case that riots cause temporary homicide increases – see also Cincinnati in 2001 – but it doesn’t seem clear that protests cause either. To strengthen the argument, one could, for example, compare major cities that experienced a given level of protest to ones that didn’t, but I haven’t seen any attempt to make correlations deeper than “hey look homicides are up in some places!”  FiveThirtyEight crunched the numbers and found a 16% homicide increase in the top 60 US cities so far in 2015; slightly concerning, but too small and too early to conclude too much.

There’s also an inherent weakness in focusing on homicides. True, the data tends to be the most clearly and consistently defined and the hardest to manipulate, compared to other crimes. But homicides are relatively rare – occurring within an order of magnitude of 100 in most major US cities. They tend to occur between people who know each other, and as such are harder for police officers to prevent (not that innovative gang interventions and improved clearance rates can’t help a whole lot). It’s harder to tell if other more common crimes are increasing at similar rates.

There’s something to be said for the denunciation deficit here, too. It’s true that many activists seem more focused on blacks killed by police than the many more blacks killed by other blacks. There are reasons that make this imbalance more understandable. But the imbalance is often highlighted with severe criticism, in classic speck-in-your-eye style, from conservatives asking why activists don’t care about both when they themselves don’t seem to care much about either.

I am more optimistic. I do see imbalances, but I also see the goodness and sincerity of many of the people involved. I believe that sincerity will lead them to a better balance. I see signs that it is beginning to happen. And I think that grace and encouragement, rather than antagonistic criticism, is more likely to make that better.

The Facts About Police Response

I believe I have demonstrated that statistics about recent crimes are more complicated than they may appear. I think the same is true of the claims that protests and criticisms have caused police to “pull back” for fear of being punished for simply doing their jobs. Barone quotes a scholar about a “reluctance to act,” but quotes are hard to rely on. I found it amusing that the NYT quoted Ferguson mayor James Knowles saying “we barely pull anybody over anymore” while in the same article saying “People here say the police still treat residents suspiciously, still bark questions, still make arrests for what they consider trivial charges.” “Barely pulling anybody over” apparently means different things to different people.

The only statistic Barone notes is that Baltimore arrests plunged 60% after Freddie Gray. An extremely similar article in this genre by David French links to two WSJ articles with text that “arrests are down” in both Baltimore and St. Louis. Interestingly, the first notes that arrests had been trending down 22% from 2014 in Baltimore pre-Gray, but the three following weeks were down 40% from the past two years. The second article says St. Louis year-to-year arrests were down by a third between last August and November, though no comparison of the pre-Brown trend for 2014; the May 2015 article curiously contains no updated stats; it also says “arrests in Baltimore were down 56% in May compared with 2014,” – which is probably where Barone rounded up to his 60% number.

These statistics – a drop in arrests in both St. Louis and Baltimore immediately following their respective police killings – seem to be the only quantifiable statistics offered to support the “pull back” theory. Commentators across various sites are repeating those same statistics several months later without any indication of whether or not the trends have continued.

It’s also not clear what kinds of arrests are down. Arrests for homicides must account for a small percentage of overall arrests – especially considering dismal clearance rates. What percent of arrests generally come from traffic stops uncovering outstanding warrants related to previous traffic stops? Are those down by a third? Is this thought to be driving the homicide increase? What actual activity was reduced to cause the drop in arrests? Fewer arrests for outstanding warrants during traffic stops? Fewer traffic stops to begin with? Fewer attempts to find suspects identified by detectives? Fewer suspects identified by detectives to begin with? Fewer drug busts?

Some of those kinds of arrests might be less immediately linked to stopping violent crime than others. Baltimore has open data on arrests, so one could strengthen the argument for the “pull back” theory if they provided evidence that the arrest slowdown has continued, or if the kinds of arrests that are down can be argued to support the theory.

It seems reasonable to suppose that under the current atmosphere, some officers may be marginally more hesitant to stop a suspicious vehicle, marginally more hesitant to follow a potentially dangerous lead, marginally more hesitant to chase down a suspect who runs away. These outcomes could be troubling, and if more evidence is provided that these things are actually occurring, I will accept it. But so far I do not think a very strong case has been made.

Furthermore, there is one piece of evidence that I believe goes against the theory. If officers were marginally more hesitant to do various things, I would think that one of those things, if not the primary thing, given that it was in fact the catalyst for all of this, would be finding officers marginally more hesitant to shoot people. The data on police killings is complicated, but the best numbers I’ve seen showed roughly 1000 deaths per year pre-Brown, or roughly three per day. There are more official outlets tracking this year, with widely varying numbers, but they all still seem to be coalescing around the same average: three per day.

Let’s presume the vast majority of these are justified. In a post-Brown, post-Gray America, officers seem no less hesitant to pull triggers when they feel their lives are on the line, to say nothing of the continuing drip of questionable incidents. It may be possible to construct a theory that accounts for this – perhaps officers are less likely to shoot per dangerous situation, but emboldened criminals are creating more dangerous situations, perfectly canceling out any statistical change. But so far I have not seen a proponent account for this any more than I have seen them detail plausible relationships from arrest numbers. Instead, commentators just seem to be trading around the same old single statistics, implying their representation of a large picture that has not yet been demonstrated to actually exist.

A Valid Concern: Emotional Toll

If the evidence for protest-led violence is weak, why are many conservatives so adamant about it? I believe that it springs from a valid concern that is being filtered through a distorted understanding about policing and crime. The valid concern is that a lot of the current police criticism is coming in broad strokes full of ignorance and hate. This is inherently unhelpful for genuine police reform, but it also has had the effect, unappreciated by the larger population, of emotionally harming thousands of good police officers who feel that they haven’t done anything wrong yet are being attacked by people they’ve never met who have no idea what their jobs are actually like.

If this mental toll becomes too great, it may sap the motivation of many to continue policing altogether, and these are not the officers you want to lose, especially if you want genuine police reform. Unlike the rhetoric about a physical “war on police,” I believe the evidence is clear that this emotional war is very real, and while I haven’t seen strong evidence that this toll is causing widespread rank thinning, I’ve seen enough ancedotal evidence that the risk of it genuinely concerns me. I think activists would do well to consider these emotional effects of the overreach of the general rhetoric.

My theory is that those who are most concerned about this overreach are most likely to believe that it must be leading to bad things, and are primed to quickly accept any evidence that it’s already happening. These conclusions are heightened when viewed through an oversimplified, distorted understanding.

A Distorted Understanding: One-Dimension Policing

When judging the effects of the critical overreach, commentators tend to mirror the denial of their opponents. Just as the defenders of the best of Black Lives Matter make no mention of death wishes made under their banner, police defenders make no mention of even the possibility that some of these protests sprung from questionable deaths. They deny that the policing status quo had any problems that offered any legitimacy to the criticism at all. They depict a false choice that the existing way was better than this new way that is alleged to be resulting in the deaths of police and citizens alike.

It all seems to stem from a view of policing as a One-Dimensional Lever Of Activity. “Let’s say it used to be set at… LEVEL 8…. and even though police weren’t doing anything wrong, you don’t seem to like it set there… or, hey, even if a few police were doing something wrong at that level, well, this thing only goes up or down, so, OK, you wanna make our jobs harder, we can pull it back here to… say… LEVEL 5…. now you can’t complain about harassment or whatever… but just don’t come complaining to us when the crime gets out of control! See, look at these stats! It’s already happening!”

Barone says “the ‘broken windows’ policing BLM decries has saved thousands of black lives.” He thinks the lever went up to save black lives, and now it’s coming down, no longer saving them. But the link between crime and no-tolerance policing has been disputed for years. Criminologists have noted that cities that didn’t try New York City’s “tough policing” saw crime drops as big as the ones that did, suggesting that other nationwide factors may have been involved in the trends of the last few decades.

Even if no-tolerance policing does reduce some crime, it may be limited, and unsustainable, due to the way it tends to foster community resentment. Turn the lever too high, and you can lose effectiveness – if no one in the neighborhood likes you, they’re not helping you catch criminals, either. Barone seems unaware that the original “champion of broken windows policing,” former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton himself, is now trying to replace that with “a new approach to community policing that attempts to repair the breach between police and citizens.”

The Good News

This means there is good news. Even if police are pulling back, and even if that is leading to some increases in crime, we don’t have to return to the status quo that led to widespread police resentment among urban minorities. Policing is not just a one-dimensional lever. You can fix overreach without hampering good police work and restoring community relations that help you work with the community to reduce crime, all at the same time. I believe it because I’ve read about it happening – in Cincinnati. In Los Angeles. It may be starting to happen in St. Louis.

It always happens when angry sides come together to listen to each other, to see good faith in the best of the other’s intentions, to admit the imperfections of our own, and to look for ways to work together. It won’t happen as long as we’re chasing every cherry-picked statistic to prove that the other side is totally responsible for the problem.

If You Want Moderate Muslims To Denounce The Radicals

“If Muslims are peaceful, why don’t they condemn terrorism?”

This is a common question in some philosophical corners in response to headlines about attacks by radical Islamists. Assuming the good faith of those who ask this question, there are three important things to recognize.

1. Muslims do denounce terrorism.

It only takes a few minutes on Google to find condemnations of radical Islam by the Secretary General for the Organization Of Islamic Cooperation, the top cleric of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, Al-Azhar’s Grand Mufti (the highest religious authority of Egypt), the chief of the Arab League, the Muslim Council of Great Britain, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the American Muslim Political Co-ordination Committee, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabiadozens of UK imamsa Muslim HuffPo bloggerMuslims in Toronto, Muslims in Norway, and many, many more.

When someone says “I haven’t heard moderate Muslims denouncing radical Islam,” maybe what they really mean is “I haven’t looked for it.”

2. These denunciations are handicapped by the disincentives of information flow biases.

Why should this person have to look for it? He didn’t go looking for news about terrorist attacks – the news just came to him. Or so it seemed. Perhaps he implicitly assumes that news about condemnations of terrorist attacks should just come to him the same way.

I think there is a fallacy that “news” is a generally consistent portrayal of “things that are happening in the world.” I think this fallacy is especially seductive to those of us who “follow the news.” We know there are political biases in the way these “things” are portrayed or emphasized by certain sources, but I think we often ignore the inherent biases that affect whether or not events show up on our radar as “things” to be portrayed at all, and how they filter their way to our consciousness when they do.

Denunciations about terrorist attacks face multiple handicaps. First. people being killed tends to attract more attention than people talking. The latter is less likely to be introduced as “breaking news” or front-page headlines. Regardless of how prominently it is introduced, it is less likely to propagate through clicks, shares, comments, and general discussion.

Sometimes people talking about big events can attract more attention due to the connection to the big event. But a second handicap is that Western media and its Western consumers tend to pay more attention to Western people, especially those who are Important. That’s how Obama not going to France – a non-event that would normally register even less attention than Obama talking about something – was apparently a bigger deal last week than hundreds or thousands of Nigerians killed by Boko Haram. If dying Africans can’t compete with Obama’s travel plans, what hope do talking Arabs have?

A third handicap is that we tend to pay more attention to events that elicit emotion than events that absorb emotion. An article about someone condemning violence – if it finally manages to make it past the other handicaps – is less likely to elicit much reaction. Well, duh, denouncing violence is what we would expect any normal person to do. Normal expectation satisfied, emotion absorbed, not much impulse to share that story with others,

These handicaps hold true independently of political bias. A couple of the above links are from Fox News and the Blaze. But how prominently were such articles featured on these sites to begin with? How many clicks and shares did they receive? What percentage of articles do regular visitors to these sites read, what percentage of front-page vs. below-the-fold/deeplinked articles do regular visitors read, and what is the chance they saw those lesser articles at all?

3. If you really want more moderate denunciation of radicals, you should encourage and amplify the voices that are already doing that.

Some respond to the above points by moving the goalposts or making weaker claims: “Well, there’s still not enough of them” or “Well, they need to try harder” or “Well, it doesn’t seem to be working, does it?”

It can be simultaneously true that there are Muslims condemning violence done in the name of Islam and that the efforts of those voices should be increased. But I think people in good faith, if they really want those moderate voices to be more successful, should not respond with derision, but by recognizing the handicaps faced by those moderate voices and helping them out by encouraging and amplifying their voices.

Reinforcing Our Views On False Choices

An activist in Arizona went through some use-of-force training scenarios with police and came away with a different attitude. I think it’s a great example of the power of rejecting False Choices and trying to understand opposing perspectives. The better you understand what it’s like to be a police officer, the better you can offer legitimate critique and ideas for improving things as opposed to baseless criticism and demagoguery.

I think it would be great if every protester did this. I also think it would be great if, say, every pro-police counter-rally-goer would spend a couple days driving around and hanging out with some young black men in the inner city (it’s harder to come up with comparable reverse scenarios due to some of the power asymmetries involved, but something like that might be a start). Increased understanding leads to increased empathy, breaking the negative feedback cycles of defensiveness and outrage.

It was interesting, though, to see the article making the rounds in the conservative wings of False Choice land. Many people seemed to view the story through the tribal lenses that divide these issues between “police” and “protesters” and insist on choosing sides between them. False Choicers already knew that “police” was the right side and “protesters” was the wrong side, and this activist’s experience simply proved that he was on the wrong side in his ignorance, but his enlightenment showed him the truth about the right side.

Instead of the article making them think that their own views might suffer from similar ignorance, they could only think about all the activists on the other side they wished would also become enlightened to their side. Instead of the article implying that protesters who want to fix problems with police are more likely to be able to make genuine improvements if they understand an officer’s position, the article only implied to them that there are no problems with the police that need fixing at all!

As someone who rejects False Choice land, the incident reinforced to me the value of rejecting False Choice land. For someone who thrives in False Choice land, the very same incident reinforced the value of thriving in it.

The Road Taxes Are Coming, The Road Taxes Are Coming

Congressional Republicans are not ruling out raising the gas tax to keep afloat the broke Highway Trust Fund… (WashingtonExaminer)

I assure you I was going to predict this before it hit the news yesterday, but I can’t prove it. I never even tweeted about it. Oh well.

I first blogged about the growing road tax problem over three years ago (wow, that’s like forever in blog-years), and not much has changed since then. It’s been over two years since I blogged about the increase in US oil production, and not much has changed about that, either, except that the oil markets finally responded and dropped like 50% in the last few months.

A couple months in I started wondering if the corresponding drop in gas prices, which I don’t expect to reverse any time soon, would give Congress more appetite for a gas tax increase. The per-gallon funding system is still increasingly broken, but it’s only like 18 cents a gallon. That was a lot when prices were, like, 60 cents before adding that tax. But we’ve seen 300-400 cents now! Prices have dropped like 150 cents from the levels customers have gotten used to, so what’s, say, 9 cents back the other direction? That would immediately give the fund a 50% boost, extending the broken model out for at least several election cycles.

Yeah, yeah, Republicans taking over Congress, Republicans will never increase taxes. Yeah, right. The road tax is one of the more reasonable federal taxes out there (not that there’s a super high bar there), and the numbers just don’t add up anymore. Once they accept it the politicians will come up with any number of justifications. “It’s better than a Big Brother per-mile tax.” Or maybe they’ll extract some sort of concession that theoretically reduces construction union power to theoretically reduce ongoing maintenance costs or something. Or maybe they’ll just hide it in a spending bill somewhere with a graduated increase that hopefully won’t get noticed too intently.

It’ll give people something to complain about when prices go back up, but, hey, they’re going to complain about that no matter what even as they buy more fuel-efficient vehicles that more than offset it. It’ll give Tea Partiers something to complain about while they drive on the federally funded highways to get to their rallies about how the establishment Republicans are so unacceptably compromising of Big Government, which, again, they’re going to complain about anyway.

And the government will still pay people to Build The Roads. And the unsustainably subsidized suburban sprawl will sustain itself a little while longer. And life will go on.

Bastiat On Race

Over the last couple years, I’ve learned to take a page from Bastiat, if you’ll forgive the probably oversimplified and inappropriate association, and think about the unseen on matters of race. The unseen is important in many things, but perhaps it is especially important with race due to the large assumptions we make about the unseen of other races based on the seen of our own race.

For example, like many conservatives I used to ask why blacks were so outraged about killings by police officers and not outraged by the much more prevalent killings of blacks by blacks. Nevermind all the reasons, both subjective and objective, one might respond differently to the same actions committed by different people held to different standards. I literally had the audacity to assume that the outrage that I personally observed in the arena of public discourse was equivalent to the outrage that actually took place! Now I have had my eyes opened to some of the outrage that was previously unseen to me.

I have been thinking about this principle again. I am fascinated by the the conservative response to the non-indictment of the officer who choked Eric Garner. The pundits are all quick to point out how very different this case is from the Michael Brown case they just spent four months justifying, although some of them are bending over backwards to express their concern in the most guarded way possible, saying they don’t know enough about it to absolutely sure something is wrong. (Yet they somehow know enough to be sure it’s definitely not about the things their political opponents think it’s about. But, hey, partisans gotta partisan.)

What fascinates me, though, is their implicit confidence that they are responding to an objective illustration of these issues. They are patting themselves on the back for responding consistently to the facts that have entered the arena of public discourse without seeming to notice the array of influences over what facts enter the arena of public discourse to begin with. They are all commenting about how much more justified New York City’s anger was than Ferguson’s without seeming to notice that it is probably only because of Ferguson that they are paying attention to New York City at all. They want to treat these as isolated cases that are not representative of systemic issues without recognizing that a long unseen history of systemic issues could be the only reason these cases bubbled up into their field of vision in the first place.

YouTube clips of Garner’s choking were available weeks before Michael Brown was even killed, but his death remained largely unseen outside the arena of civil rights activists until Ferguson (which itself was largely unseen until the burned QuikTrip gave everyone something to denounce). That anger in Ferguson may have been partially kindled by a history of abusive local practices which have now gotten so much attention in the state that Republican lawmakers are writing up reforms.

In this narrative, unseen but justified anger over systemic issues provoked seen but unjustified anger over a single event, which gave partisans enough to argue about that it held our attention long enough to actually see the justified anger over another similar event. Isolated, unrelated incidents? Please.

Maybe I’m oversimplifying things. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence these publicized decisions came down so near to each other. It’s not like the grand jury process is new. It’s not like police officers killing unarmed men is new, either. What is new is that the decisions about them are being publicized. They have (at least until the next exaggerated health scare) burst from the unseen arena to the seen.

I am fascinated by how consistently the pundits are referencing the video as clearly showing the details behind Garner’s death without seeming to be aware of the influence the video had on the fact that they “saw” this death at all. The video is the reason that Eric Garner is the second “seen” grand jury decision that everyone is comparing to the first “seen” decision about Michael Brown.

Contrary to conservative beliefs about liberal media, the media does not relentlessly spotlight every white officer’s killing of a black man while ignoring the killing of whites. There are far too many “unseen” deaths (of all races) for even the media to pay attention to them all. Many are doubtlessly justified. But no one seems to have a good idea of how many aren’t, and how many of those unjustified deaths receive justice through the justice system. There seem to be a couple of issues that raise doubts that this happens with satisfactory regularity.

One issue is that when there is no video of the incident, the authorities have an enormous amount of control over the information that enters the arena of public discourse. After the release of Brown’s surveillance footage (which was not footage of the officer’s shooting), conservatives criticized liberals for caring more about the footage being leaked than the “facts” of the footage itself, while missing the whole point that the curious way these facts were released raised doubts about what other facts might remain unseen.

Another issue is the inherent conflict of interest in a prosecutor bringing charges against the officers he needs to help him bring charges against non-officers. This leads to unusual grand jury procedures, if the cases even make it to a grand jury at all. Conservatives have shown remarkable interest in dissecting the consistency of the evidence to Darren Wilson’s account without showing nearly as much interest in the unusual way the account was handled by the system. Sympathetic prosecutors may not have led the rigorous cross-examination of a regular trial, which may have left relevant facts unseen, or left questionable “facts” unchallenged.

The system of policing the policemen may have had these issues for a long time, but these issues have remained largely unseen. Until now.

Ferguson brought these issues to the attention of some of us in the St. Louis area, but the apparent absence of clear evidence contradicting the officer’s narrative allowed most to ignore their relevance; maybe the outcome would or should have been the same even without those potential slants. The video of Eric Garner – now that it has entered the arena of public discourse – is bringing those issues to the attention of all.

(Incidentally, this is why I don’t share the despair of those now saying “so much for body cameras”. This footage may not have changed the outcome of this grand jury decision, but it has done more to open people’s eyes to problems with the grand jury process – and thus the potential for change – than anything I’ve ever, uh, seen.)

Which circles us back to the issue of race. The debate about whether or not any given event is “about” race is somewhat distracting, I think. What seems clear to me is that there are a lot of unseen experiences, often grouped along racial lines, which influence not only our perceptions of those events, but whether we perceive them at all.

Does Game Theory Explain Why Everyone’s Becoming More Libertarian About The War On Drugs?

Marijuana shops opened in Colorado this year, and the sky has not yet fallen. But the trend of former politicians denouncing failed drug policies has suddenly caught up to those still in office, and politicians both red and blue are now falling over themselves to sound more libertarian than the next guy.

Barack Obama – the sitting president of the United States – admits on the public record that he doesn’t think marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol. Chris Christie says “we will end the war on drugs,” and Rick Perry wants to move towards decriminalization. (Yes, that means the moderate/establishment wing, the evangelical wing, and the libertarian wing of the Republican Party are all now moving in this direction.) Obama’s attorney general Eric Holder wants to reduce drug-related sentencing, and conservatives at CPAC are arguing that it’s actually conservative to put fewer people in prison for drugs so we can reduce government spending on prisons, reduce government intrusion in our personal lives, and reduce crime by stopping the inevitable networking of non-violent drug dealers that leaves them no job options when they get out besides the violent skills they picked up in prison.

All of this is music to my ears.

The cynic would say these politicians are just responding to reality and the shifting opinions of the electorate. It’s true that public polling on marijuana legalization has approached and fully crossed the 50% threshold in recent years. It’s true that tight budgets and bloated prisons, combined with renewed small-government fervor, are incentivizing enough common sense to begin to shift power away from the “prison industrial complex.”

These kinds of explanations are likely enough, but I wonder if that’s the whole picture. After all, it’s easy to find polls on other topics that haven’t created such a shift in the rhetoric of both major parties. So here is my pet theory: Perhaps it has something to do with the growing threat of libertarian politics.

What threat, you may say? Didn’t Gary Johnson only get about 1% of the vote in 2012? Where is the Libertarian Party coming close to winning even statewide elections anywhere? My argument is not that they are winning (outside the Republican Party, that is), but that they are picking up enough votes that both Democrats and Republicans are starting to worry about them.

In this month’s special election for FL-13, the Libertarian candidate picked up 4.8% of the vote in what appears to be the first time they fielded a candidate there. I haven’t done an extensive analysis, but there appear to be multiple districts in 2012 where the Libertarian candidate out-performed the difference between the two major parties, potentially tipping races in both directions.

Most game theory political analysis focuses on how the shifting whims of the electorate affects the two major parties (in this case, since the electorate is allegedly becoming “more liberal,” pitting claims that this means the Republican Party is doomed against more boring claims that the party will simply become more liberal as well. But perhaps that analysis is too simple, and there’s a third player here. Perhaps a growing libertarian presence is also influencing both parties to become more libertarian to reduce the risk of those candidates spoiling races for either of them.

At least that’s what almost seems to be happening with the War on Drugs.

Uganda, Homosexuality, and Evangelical Signaling

I used to say that, whatever American evangelicals had to say about banning gay marriage, hardly any of them seemed to be trying to ban homosexuality itself, and that this distinction said a lot about what both conservatives and liberals think conservatives believe about the intersection of legislation and morality. Muslims in Iran may kill homosexuals, but Christians in America do not.

But apparently that’s not quite true in Uganda, where evangelical Christian president Yoweri Museveni just signed into a law a bill that, as I understand it, would put those repeatedly convicted of homosexual sex in prison for life (a slight reduction from the originally proposed death penalty). I’m hesitant to hastily judge brothers from an unfamiliar culture on a continent I have never visited, but Jesus prevented the religious leaders of his day from stoning a woman caught in adultery, and even remembering the call to “go and sin no more” I’m having trouble understanding how he would approve of his followers laying similar legal sentences on those caught in other types of Levitically-denounced sexual activity.

Even more disturbing is the apparent right-wing American evangelical influence on the creation of this law. I think the media is likely exaggerating the connection, and much of it seems to be guilt by association (Rick Warren is bad because he was once buddy-buddy with one of these guys, but Barack Obama is not bad because he was once buddy-buddy with Rick Warren?), but even the most charitable interpretations of such claims are, well, not very charitable. This is compounded by the fact that I can find lots of media attempts to connect American conservatives to this shameful Uganda law, but I have neither heard nor found any attempts by conservatives to defend or disassociate themselves.

I find it hard to believe that a significant number of conservative Americans agree with this law, but I also find it hard to explain their silence in the face of the recent flood of accusations (please point me to any defenses I may have missed). This would be a perfect opportunity for right-wing evangelicals to denounce the sort of theocratic legislating that liberals often caricature them as wanting, signaling that their real political beliefs are at least not that unreasonable, campaigns against gay marriage and potentially misrepresented but admittedly vague state laws included.

But “politics is not about policy.” Are American conservative evangelicals so caught up in political tribalism that they are afraid of signaling disagreement with others who are on “their side” when it comes to homosexuality, even if they are extreme enough that such association damages the credibility of their religious beliefs? Yet I have not generally found that to be true in other instances, as the average evangelical is more than happy to hastily disassociate themselves from the protestors of Westboro Baptist, for instance.

I have never liked the far-left attempts to compare the Tea Party with the Taliban, as if throwing acid on women who don’t cover their heads is somehow remotely equivalent to thinking bosses should be able to let employees buy cheap, publicly available birth control pills with their own money. The Taliban kills their political/religious opponents; the Tea Party does not. But unless the Tea Party starts to disassociate themselves from these alleged connections to those putting their opponents in prison for life, such comparisons might start to make me a little more uncomfortable than they ever did before.

When Capitalism and the Internet Make Food Better

There has been a flurry of activity in recent days from food companies responding to consumer demands to improve the quality of their products. New York Times provides a summary:

Chick-fil-A said on Tuesday that within five years it would no longer sell products containing meat from chickens raised with antibiotics…

A growing number of restaurant chains, including Chipotle and Panera Bread, have made commitments to serve meat only from animals raised without antibiotics, and consumers have responded enthusiastically…

Subway announced last week that it would eliminate azodicarbonamide, a chemical that commercial bakers use to increase the strength and pliancy of dough, but, as noted by the consumer crusader Vani Hari, is also used for the same purposes in yoga mats and shoe soles.

And on Tuesday, Kraft said it was taking sorbic acid, an artificial preservative that had come under attack by consumers, out of some individually wrapped cheese slices…

These are pretty exciting times. It looks like the Internet is continuing to help spread information and ignite and amplify voices to demand change in the marketplace. This is exactly what I predicted two years ago when the Internet facilitated a revolution in “pink slime” meat:

Consumers have always been able to demand products that businesses had incentives to supply. But now technology lets us join together in large enough numbers to demand that businesses stop doing sketchy things that they then have the incentives to stop doing, even if the slow-moving, lobby-infested government never says they have to.

It’s not perfect, and sometimes I think this technology also allows the public to unfairly criticize businesses or go too far, but in general I think it’s pretty awesome. Individual consumers are becoming more empowered than ever before, and I’m excited to see what we do next.

The last two years appear to have empowered individuals even further. And this empowerment continues to prove that consumers can make companies respond faster than government can; the FDA has dithered for decades in regulating antibiotic use and only barely took some limited, voluntary steps last year after an alarming CDC report about growing antibiotic resistance. But it seems to be the consumers who have ultimately extracted such “regulation” from a growing number of companies.

It’s hard to overstate how beautiful are these examples of capitalism creating good out of an industry that has long been associated with its underside. I recently read Salt, Sugar, and Fat, which details the last hundred years of companies competing to churn out cheaper, tastier, more addicting – and more health-destroying – products. (Sure, people choose to buy them, and most regulation would probably have been worse, but even the most hardcore libertarian has to at least admit that the Nash equilibria have not been very optimal.) I also recently read Fast Food Nation, which details the last hundred years of companies exploiting information and power asymmetries to hurt agriculture industry employees, pushing me the farthest to the left in my sympathies for labor movements that I have ever been (not that that’s saying much).

But if the twentieth century was marked by food companies competing to win the most customers by lowering the health quality of their products, perhaps the twenty-first century will be marked by food companies competing to win the most customers by improving the health quality of their products. When the customer cared most about price, taste, and convenience, they each tried to outdo each other by piling on more sugar or salt or sourcing chickens raised in the cheapest (and dirtiest) available environment. But when the customer cares more about health, they now try to outdo each other in removing questionable items from their ingredients so that they don’t lose their customers to whoever’s doing more.

This won’t lead to utopia. The consumer is a contradictory, multi-headed beast. Plenty of consumers still want cheap, junk food and will only pay so much for improved health. Even individual consumers do not consistently know what they want in the ever-changing dynamics of food choices. But the recent activism and responses proves there are plenty of relatively painless ways companies can improve their options once the demand shifts the equilibria just enough to make it so. I suspect there is still plenty of low-hanging fruit on this tree.

And one of the key differences is the increase in technology. The Internet allows us to learn more about how companies are creating their foods and what might be problematic about those processes (reducing information asymmetry). The Internet also allows us to group together to amplify our voices loud enough to be heard on these matters, encouraging companies to respond to the slightest worry about a drop in quarterly profits before it even happens (reducing power asymmetry). And that is a beautiful thing.